Month: October 2017

Human Sacrifice in America

It is a ritual we perform every few months. It has an improvisational, democratic form. There is no hierarchical organization imposing dogma or prescribed form. But the ritual has a form. It has a consistent pattern, and presumably in some way it reinforces the social order.

(image credit David Becker/Getty)

I’m not talking about terrorism in the specific sense of the word, of using violence to terrorize in pursuit of a political goal. Terrorism, in my book, must have an organizational structure behind it, and the terrorist act must have been conceived as integral and strategic to that organization’s goals. The organization can be very loosely conceived, but the violent act and the terrorist actor must be also integral to that organization. I’m not talking about terrorism in this sense.

Nor, truth be told, am I talking about human sacrifice exactly, since that implies a ritual act that carries meaning within a religious/philosophical construct that can be defined, and that must also entail a group of people who believe in its tenets, and assent to the need for sacrifice in pursuance of their belief system. No, I can’t quite define these acts in this sense of sacrifice, but it comes closer to their nature than the implications of the word terrorism. These acts, these mass shootings,  deficient of organizational/political goals, are a type of democratic sacrament peculiar to American culture. And if they are a sacrifice, they are one in which we all participate in much the same way that the masses stared in horror at the Aztec priests who threw their victims down the vertiginous stairs of the pyramid.

Nationalist ritual, all ritual really, hinges upon the emotional impact of its performance. Its emotional impact has to do with the sensory experience, but also with the symbolic experience, whereby a thousand tiny gestures are each ordered in such a way as to resonate with the ways those thousand gestures are used in other aspects fo life, and that through time and usage those gestures are imbued with a set of meanings. And while each time those gestures are repeated in their patterned form, their meaning solidifies and narrows into ever more specific messages, too much repetition risks their being shorn of all meaning, and losing their power in numb gesticulation leaving behind an empty ritual. The improvisational form of the mass shooting mitigates this problem, allowing the gestures and their symbolic meaning to be reformed in new particulars each time, revivifying the ritual with each invocation. But still we become a bit numb. They are so frequent, so similar in their broad outlines, their particulars run together in our heads. But we go through the ritual, a bit numbed by their frequency. What the Aztecs certainly understood, and we need to understand as well, is that just as a visions of ecstatic beauty or communal harmony can inspire emotional response, so also can horror. In all cases, it is the emotional response that warrants the ritual, that makes it real, makes it memorable, makes its meaning palpable. Horror is memorable, and therefore powerful as ritual.

Terrorism uses much the same horror, but for different ends. Ritual is an internally-directed act, meant to reinforce the values and identity of the congregation. Terrorism is outwardly-directed, meant to influence an enemy (however defined) in ways thought to be advantageous to the terrorizing organization. The ritual is meant to reinforce the community of its participants. There is significant overlap between these two, in the sense that terrorist acts can be invoked in ritually important ways for the group that commits them, and ritual acts can be directed towards terrorist purposes. The burning cross at a KKK rally is a ritual; the burning cross on the front yard of a black family is terrorism. In the first case there is the inwardly oriented emotional experience, which in this case is both a memorial of the original Christian sacrifice, and secondly a fresh sacrifice in that the symbol (the cross) is consumed anew in a manner that reconstitutes the original sacrifice into a new belief system. In the second case, the ritualized symbol is deployed, with all its internally-constituted power, for the purpose of instilling fear and hopelessness in an “enemy” (the black family) with hopes that they will then abandon any claim on participation in the broader society the KKK claims to represent in its ritual unity. We then must also acknowledge that participation and witness to the burning cross on the black family’s yard is also an internally-directed ritual that reinforces the KKK as a quasi-religious organization. Much the same logic applies to the Islamicist suicide bomber, which when deployed against an enemy (again however defined) has both terrorist and ritualistic qualities. In many cases, in Islamic settings, suicide bombings might be best described in the terms of ritual that I am using here, in that they are not really outwardly directed, but rather inwardly directed to the home community, which is horrified by the act, but also thus ritually engaged in it and its flowering of symbolic meaning. The mass shooting is our suicide bomb.

Following mass shootings, much discussion ensues as to whether it should be defined as “lone wolf” or “terrorist” in nature. And this debate has an appealing symmetrical nature, that then invokes a whole series of political beliefs and social identities. Let me pose that this debate is merely a constitutive part of the sacrificial ritual, as is the inevitably fruitless debate over gun control, as are the outpourings of grief along the whole spectrum from devastated to hypocritical. In defining these mass shootings as sacrificial ritual, I am trying to transcend the “lone wolf”/”terrorist” debate, but all in all I am talking about the “lone wolf” because of the above definition of terrorism. They are all lone wolfs, regardless of race, creed, or color. And to that extent they are resolutely, indelibly American. And they initiate the ritual as democratic citizens, in a democracy fetishized by guns.

The most enigmatic of these bridge that gap between sacrifice and terror. Dylann Roof (Charleston church shooting) and Omar Mateen (Orlando club shooting) both fit the broad, ritualistic pattern of American mass shooters, but both claimed to be acting in the interests of a terrorist cause (White Supremacy in the first case, Islamicist Revolution in the second). They both acted against communities perceived as enemy (African Americans in the first instance, gay/gay-friendly club goers in the second). But there is no evidence in either case that they acted in any coordinated manner with terrorist organizations who claimed them. Rather, they acted in lonely manner of the typical American mass shooter, and it just so happened that their personal rationales (which need not imply they are rational in any way, and in fact what defines them is that they are not) coincide with terrorist ideologies. This does not, in my opinion, make them terrorists however. They remain no different in kind from other mass shooters whose personal vendettas are more introverted in nature, such as the Batman-costumed shooter in Aurora, Colorado, or the young man who shot up his former grade school in Sandy Hook. These all lie within the all-American ritual of mass shootings, and are not terrorism (even if they terrorize), but are rather sacrificial in nature. The ritual they invoke, with its emotive symbolism, is a peculiarly American sense of democracy. The shooters are a cross section of America and so also their victims. The ritual is not prescribed or directed from on high, the NRA notwithstanding. The ritual is engendered at the individual level, and performed communally at the national level. 

The ritual as a whole entails the lonely preparation, the shooting itself, the carnage, the news coverage, and the public and private mourning and meaning-making that ensue, including the gun-control and terrorism debates. This entire improvised and participatory structure constitutes the ritual. And at the core of the ritual is death imbued with quasi-religious meaning. This is human sacrifice. So the question that appears before us is to understand the nature of the ritual and its meaning for us as Americans, and then the consideration of whether there is any way to rein in the violence and human cost of the ritual. Can the body find some sort of bread-and-wine substitute? Or a ram? Or a blood-letting that need not entail death or grievous harm to the victim?

I am not going to attempt a full answer to these questions here. Suffice to say that reasonable limitations on guns would certainly reduce the damage caused by such incidents. But it will not eliminate them, their meaning-system lies too deep in the culture. The meaning-system is also engendered by the ubiquity of war metaphors and extreme rhetoric mushrooming in internet echo-chambers. The meaning-system is reinforced constantly in Hollywood movies, where all problems and personality conflicts can be represented through gun violence, in narratives where the solution to all problems is found in shooting-and-killing. The video game industry creates thoroughly pornographic versions of this narrative in games where little else happens other than the mind-numbing trudge of shooting-and-killing. So it is not only the second amendment that is at stake here, but also the first.